Hours after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, I received a message from a nun in the eastern part of that nation. Despite the danger, she and her fellow sisters had chosen to remain in their monastery so they could minister to area residents, while assisting the growing flood of refugees trying to flee the country. She texted several photos she’d taken of families struggling to board overcrowded trains at the nearby station.
In one image, two young girls, no more than five or six years old, stood on the train platform, bundled in their winter coats. The older child clutched a large teddy bear, while her sister glanced up at the mother; the girls’ father clasped a pet carrier, and both parents wore the blank, exhausted look of disaster victims, caught between the unreal and the all-too-real. Their faces, and the injustice of their plight, continue to haunt me. With Russian forces shelling evacuation routes, I don’t know if the family made it to the border.
Later the same day, I listened to a homily by Father Roman Pitula, the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia. As family members in his native land braced for further Russian assaults, Father Pitula spoke of “finding the courage to forgive your enemy,” since “that is what Jesus asks us to do.”
On Ash Wednesday, Ukrainian Catholic Father Ruslan Borovyi told me that “there are a lot of ashes nowadays in Ukraine, not just symbolic … ashes from hospitals that have been bombed, ashes mixed with blood and tears.”
Receiving that smudged mark of the cross on one’s forehead at the start of Lent cannot remain the same after evil has already clawed your heart: ashes take on a whole new meaning when they’re all that’s left of your house, your town, your loved ones.
At a recent five-hour prayer vigil for peace, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S., said the David-vs.-Goliath struggle waged by Ukraine held a lesson for the world, one that pointed to Christ himself.
“We see the courage of people in Ukraine on the front, in the streets, in the homes, in the church, in the subways — people who have faith and believe,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “And in some mystical way, to the whole world, they’re saying, ‘Believe.’”
Over the past few weeks, I have been privileged to hear the stories of Ukrainians in this area and (thanks to messaging apps and Zoom) in Ukraine. I’ve interviewed a newly ordained priest whose first days of ministry in Lviv have been spent blessing relief supplies for soldiers, encouraging volunteers and seeking shelter when air sirens sound – all undertaken with a steadfast faith in the Savior he serves. I’ve talked to Ukrainians here who, between slow streams of tears, and at times sobs, have shared their anguish over loved ones cowering under the rain of Russian bombs and bullets – and who, amid their suffering, have raised to heaven not clenched fists, but open hands.
To these individuals, and to the people of Ukraine and its diaspora, I offer my deepest thanks. I consider it an honor to lift up, in my small corner of the digital news environment, your words and your experiences. In your voices, we hear sounds too often silenced in this world: the strains of truth, faith, justice, courage and sacrifice, even unto the laying down of one’s life.
I can only pray the rest of us will hear, and heed.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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